I call it “The Moment”. That moment where we realize we need to get in shape.
Sometimes it’s one big lightning bolt out of the blue or sometimes it’s many little moments that build up to a breaking point.
But there’s a moment where you realize that things have to change. Maybe you can’t find something that looks decent for an event. Perhaps you tried playing basketball with the young bucks and had to play the “easy on the old man” card. Or maybe you just looked in the mirror one day and realized how far things had gone.
You have got to get in shape.
For me, I’d ballooned up after a few years of injuries, depression, and stress took their toll. I realized that I was training clients in my gym, in July, wearing a hoodie because I didn’t feel comfortable wearing a t-shirt. I’ve been a fitness professional for 20 years, and after helping thousands of people realize their fitness goals, that was my breaking point.
If you’ve hit your personal “I’ve got to get in shape” moment, I wrote this guide for you. We’re going to cover the five basic pillars you need to address to actually see it through to the end. As you know, it’s more than just working out and eating right. Missing these components of a plan are why most people don’t get where they want to go.
The easiest way to explain it is like a road trip in an old truck…
Two Greybeards Strike Out In a Truck
A few years back my Dad took the trip of a lifetime. He and one of his greybeard buddies, Warren, took off in a restored 1960’s Chevy headed for Alaska. They had a path and a plan, but no timeline.
Warren had, in his wild youth, taken his new (at the time) truck and gone on a vision quest from Maine to Alaska. After spending the necessary time doing all the things young men do, he returned home to start his “real” life of a road construction and heavy equipment repair business in Maine. Eventually the truck found its way to the rock wall of his junkyard to rust away.
Well, he and my dad cooked up a scheme where they’d restore the old girl, build a camper in the bed, and take off on a more mature Round Two of that trip.
After spending a winter rebuilding the Chevy from the ground up and making some modern modifications, they puttered off on a sundown trip of a lifetime. Now, I’m not sure they did the kinds of things that young men do, but they spent three months on the road enjoying all that the US and Canada had to offer a pair of curmudgeonous old farmers. They swung through every farm and roadside attraction that tickled their fancy, cooked a lot of meals on the tailgate, and pulled over in quiet spots to crash for the night.
When I talk to someone who wants to get in shape, whether it’s back into the old body of years gone by or do it for the first time, I think of it like restoring and modernizing that old truck. So get ready, we’re going to pull you out of the rock wall, limber things up, and get you set up for the epic roadtrip that is the rest of your life.
Introducing the Five Pillars of Getting in Shape – Like Restoring an Old Truck for an Epic Roadtrip
- Plan your trip.
- Fuel the machine.
- Build the structure.
- Follow the GPS.
- Do the maintenance.
Pillar #1 – Plan Your Trip
I’m not going to bog you down with a bunch of mindset mumbo-jumbo, but it’s going to be important to establish some clarity around this whole venture.
Everyone loves the energy of getting started on a fitness journey, am I right? There’s the excitement of a new plan, new gym, and new kicks and toys. We’re excited to just get in there and whoop some ass.
THIS is going to be the time it all works, we’re sure of it.
It’s at that point where it usually goes wrong. Over my 20 years of coaching clients I can tell you that the ones who just dive in 100% are rarely the ones that make it. I love enthusiasm as much as the next coach, but let’s get some things straight first.
Where are you now?
Let’s say you came to me and wanted a map to Seattle, Washington. Imagine that I could give you the exact map to get there, right down to every turn, streetlight, and speed trap along the route from New York City. Pretty good, right?
Except you’re in Atlanta.
That’s not very helpful, is it?
That’s exactly what most people do when they start a new plan. They just grab a program that promises the destination and jump right in. Along the way, they get lost.
First we need to figure out where you’re starting from. Here are a handful of questions to get some understanding before you begin:
- What’s my current fitness situation like? Ten years on the couch or fairly active?
- Do I have any current or old injuries I need to pay attention to?
- What’s my (be honest) skill level when it comes to exercise?
- What’s my schedule and resources look like?
- What kind of exercise do I like and what kind do I hate?
- Why do I want to do this? What am I running away from and running towards?
Figuring out where you are starting from makes building a functional plan a whole lot easier.
Where do you want to go?
Next up is our next destination. Like a good road trip, chances are you’ll have some twists, turns, and interesting distractions along your fitness journey. As such I don’t stress a whole lot with new clients on building a deeply detailed “end” physique or condition. We talk about it a bit but it’ll likely change by the time they get there.
Instead we focus on the next good milestone, often 8-12 weeks away.
- What are a couple of measurables you want to keep track of?
- Are there any events or special occasions that matter to you that will motivate you?
- Do you have a strong image in your mind or, even better, an actual picture of yourself or someone else that emotionally draws you?
How’re you going to get there?
Next we get into the specifics of your roadmap. We’ll talk about the parts of the plan in a minute, but first let’s get a rough guideline from Point A to Point B.
- What’s a basic schedule that will represent the most efficient path for your lifestyle with minimal disruption?
- Do you see any upcoming pitfalls, either events or people, that you need to worry about?
- What are you willing to consciously commit to this mission? Say it out loud and/or write it out, even if it feels goofy.
If you want to get even deeper on your clarity, check out my Ultimate Guide To Getting Clarity on Your Goals here.
Pillar #2 – Fuel the Machine
Why start with nutrition?
Ok, so we’ve figured out our basic route. Now’s the time to get going on the real stuff.
We all know that in order for a vehicle to run well there’s got to be quality fuel to get it started. Sub-par fuel will put your whole trip at risk. Let’s begin with getting the old gas out and getting some new stuff in the tank.
For starters, why are we talking nutrition first and not hitting the gym?
The truth is that either works. Here’s how I make the call with my clients – If you’re not working out or really pumped about it then I say we start with your nutrition. You’re already eating and it’s always easier to tweak an existing behavior than it is to carve out a new one from scratch.
If you are jacked up to hit the gym, then by all means strike where the iron is hot. What we don’t want to do, though, is go hard on both at once. We’ll get into change science down the road, but just keep in mind that the more tumultuous you make your changes the harder they’ll be to stick to. So go hard on the training or the nutrition, but not both at once.
Let’s get into nutrition. Remember, we’re not doing some kind of hardcore, tuna-brown-rice-broccoli diet here. That’s what contest bodybuilders do to look freaky on stage. Who knows? Down the road you may decide you want to get there, but starting out like that is a sure-fire way to burn out.
So here’s what we’re going to do instead:
Do. One. Thing.
You’re already eating. What we’re going to do is pick one thing to make a change for the better. The smaller changes you can make the easier it’ll be to keep momentum because smaller changes are more likely to slip under your brain’s radar.
Your brain is tasked with keeping you alive. It doesn’t give a damn about your upcoming high school reunion or that you’re tired of not taking your shirt off at the pool. To keep you alive, it focuses on getting enough food and being able to accurately predict the future. If you start radically changing both the amount and type of food you eat you’ve now caused some big change to one of the brain’s fundamental concerns… energy.
When you start messing with your brain’s energy and predictability, it’ll pull every dirty trick it’s got to get you back on the path it’s used to. This is why it’s so easy to have a freak-out binge and then backslide on a diet, even when you aren’t starving. Your brain noticed that things were getting a little scarce and sought to restore balance.
- Add Protein
- Add a Vegetable
- Drink More Water
So to keep it small we’re going to make one change at a time. Here’s the first three I most often tackle with clients, in whichever order that feels easiest to you.
Protein is the king of the macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrate) in that it’s required consumption (we don’t make it) and has a variety of benefits including:
- Increased lean muscle
- Faster recovery from exercise and healing
- Greater thermic effect (you can eat more and not gain as much weight)
- Higher feelings of satiety
There’s a BIG gap between the minimum required protein intake to stay alive and what’s optimal. Very few people who don’t eat intentionally are consuming enough protein for ideal body composition and recovery, especially if you are training. That means that almost everyone can benefit from adding more protein to their diet.
Here’s a simple three-step process to do that:
- Have a quality protein source at every meal (3x/day) – Fish, meat, poultry, lean dairy, beans/legumes. No more meals consisting entirely of macaroni and cheese or plain salads. When that’s easy, add a fourth protein meal/snack. An easy place to do this is right around your workout.
- Once you’ve got the frequency down, aim for quantity. For an easy guide, if you’re about 180 lbs or below (or want to get there), then you want each serving to be about the size of your palm. If you’re bigger than that, do two servings.
- If you still want to sharpen the blade a bit you can use the maths. For most people about 0.8-1.0g/lb is the end goal if you train pretty hard. So a 150 lb person would shoot for 120-150g/day.
Add a Vegetable
Nutrition adjustment option number two is increasing the vegetable intake.
What’s the first thing everyone does when they’re “eating healthy”? That’s right, grab a salad. Now, if you’re like many of us, that consists of a stack of iceberg lettuce, some ratty looking carrot slivers, and lots of cheese, croutons, and cream-based dressing.
(I’m describing my brother here. Ranch is his salad lubricant of choice, if you were wondering.)
While that’s better than no vegetables, it’s not exactly what we’re shooting for.
What we’re going to do is implement a switch to crowd out some of the foods that don’t help you for some that do. Just in case you missed the memo from pretty much everyone older than you while growing up – You should eat your vegetables. Here’s why:
- Vegetables provide a ton of vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients that help you recover faster from training, stay healthier, and look better.
- Relative to most other foods, veggies have a great ratio of calories to nutrients, so you can eat a lot of them without impacting the waistline. This can help with hunger if you’re in a fat loss phase.
- Flavor and variety – Look, changing your nutrition is going to have you doing new things. This is one of the areas that “healthy” diets tend to screw up: The junk food diet is awesome, as far as your brain’s receptors are concerned. It’s all fat, sugar, and salt galore with a wide variety. When you suddenly switch to some endless, gray lifestyle of chicken, rice, and broccoli in Tupperware…it’s no wonder you have cravings. Vegetables can provide a lot of that flavor and texture variety to mitigate this flavor wasteland.
Strategic use of vegetables, even if you’re not a natural veggie eater, can make a huge difference in how you look and feel. If this is totally against the grain for you, just start with one meal. Add a vegetable you don’t hate and make sure it gets eaten. As you get used to it, move to another meal and try new veggies.
Drink More Water
Ah, water. As George Carlin noted, everyone’s so thirsty now, right? From the suburban soccer mom clutching her pink designer water bottle to the granola carrying his sticker-covered Nalgene to the meathead walking around with a recycled and rarely-washed gallon jug, everyone’s on the water train.
Why’s water so important?
- Cognitive and physical performance drops off dramatically after even a relatively small amount of water loss. 1-2% of bodyweight down, which is really only a quart or half-gallon for most people, can lead to poor decision making and lack of precision.
- Hunger and thirst signals can be confused. We’re fortunate enough to live in the kind of world where we’re rarely honestly hungry, but we can be thirsty. So when we get a little thirsty it’s easy to mistake the signal, which leads to unnecessary snacking and junk food.
- The vast majority of our metabolic functions including fat loss, muscle gain, and waste clearance all require adequate water. If you are running dry, they’ll all be compromised. So getting enough means that you’ll be leaner, stronger, and recover faster.
(CYA Statement: Can you drink too much water? For sure. Is that something the average person will ever run into? No. That usually happens with some sort of a disorder or in water chugging contests. Normal behavior wouldn’t do it.)
When you’ve mastered the easiest of these three nutrition adjustments, move on to the next easiest. Each one is a distinct habit and each one will improve your performance. Just walk your way through to success.
Think of your nutrition like filling your body’s gas tank. If you give it enough great quality fuel it’ll take you where you want to go, perform at a high level, and run a clean engine. Too much fuel, even good stuff, isn’t helpful. Too little or terrible quality fuel is even worse.
Pillar #3 – Build the Structure
Ok, we’ve settled on our journey and motivation. We went out and got the fuel. Now it’s time to pull out the tools and get this old jalopy up to snuff. When it comes to getting in shape, most people jump right to the fitness aspect. I cleared up why that’s a mistake above, but now it’s time to get into it.
There’s hundreds of thousands of trainers, gyms, workout facilities, on-demand services, and training methodologies out there. From powerlifting to dance fitness to Pilates to yoga to boxing and everywhere in between and beyond, there’s no shortage of fitness religions and their zealots telling you that their method is the best.
Hell, I do it, too. I just try not to be quite as dogmatic as most.
So which one is best? The real answer of the best fitness program for you: One that leads you to the results you want AND that you’ll actually do.
It’s going to be up to you to decide what that looks like for you. What I can help you with, though, is some basic guidelines that any good program should address. Of course, if you would just like me to solve this for you, personally, reach out. That’s my business.
<Shameless plug over with.>
There are going to be three primary components to any complete fitness program. Potentially these can be addressed in one modality, but often it’s going to be best to mix and match a little depending on your preferences. Your three components are Strength Development, Cardiovascular Fitness, and Mobility.
Strength For All
The above-mentioned zealots, depending on which camp you listen to, will say that strength training is an unnecessary path to injury or the only thing you should do, ever. As usual with a polarizing divide, the truth is in the middle. However, if you were going to bias one fitness area over others, I’d lean on strength. Here’s why:
Strength is the foundation for everything else.
I could talk about the benefits of strength training like improved muscle mass, stronger joints, higher metabolic rate, greater mobility, better blood pressure, variety, and infinite scalability, but the true value is that it makes everything else easier or possible.
All other things being equal, if you’re stronger you’ll be able to run faster and longer because each step is a lower percentage of your maximum force. You’ll be more mobile because your body will trust that it can support you in different positions. You’ll be more resilient to weird things that happen in life like taking a fall or wrestling a wild aardvark.
How much strength work do you need?
For some of us, who view strength as one of our primary pursuits, the answer is “a lot”. For most people, it’s “enough”. The goal is being strong enough to keep a good physique, do the activities and hobbies you like to do, maintain muscle and bone mass as you age, and open the doors to new adventures. This is usually somewhere in the 2-3 sessions per week range. I like two if you’re not naturally inclined to it. If you played football back in the day and the gym is what you gravitate towards, go three.
I also like to use strength training sessions as “anchors” in your new plan. Cardio and Mobility work tend to be a little more accessible when it comes to environments and time. Strength training often requires a place and equipment, and if not it’s still a dedicated “workout” block. So make use of that and set your strength sessions into your calendar. It will give you some psychological stability for your new get in shape plan.
Cardio – Love It or Hate It
If you’re big on the strength side you usually hate the cardiovascular side. In return, if you tend to avoid strength work then you’re probably a cardio fan. The truth is that we need both.
There are three primary buckets of “cardio” training that we’re going to look at. Depending on your goals you may end up utilizing one, two, or all three.
The first type, and where I think everyone should start, is cardiac output. This is the standard “cardio” we all think about: Steady-state activity.
The big benefits for everyone is that cardiac output is the purest form of training the cardiovascular system. You’ll pump oxygenated blood better, keep your heart healthier, and clear waste products faster. Basically you’ll be able to do more, climb stairs without wheezing, and recover faster from exercise. It also does a good job with blood sugar management, keeping bodyfat in check, and does wonders for mental health.
Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) cardio is your Yin to strength training’s Yang. Heavy and intense strength work is balanced out with longer duration, slower LISS.
Here’s some general guidelines for LISS:
- Keep it slow, probably slower than you think. We’re looking to be in your Zone 2 heart rate, if you’re a heart rate nerd. That’s 60-70% of your max heart rate (220-age), NOT MORE. So if you’re 40, you have a theoretical max HR of 180, you’d be training in the 108-126 range. Basically, you should be working but still able to carry on a conversation.
- Get at least 30 minutes in when you can. Let’s be honest, I’m probably never going to say that getting in a walk, even if it’s ten minutes, is bad. However, much of the cardiovascular remodeling happens after about 30:00. So do get some longer sessions in.
- Minimize pounding. Everyone thinks that “cardio” is going for a run. That can certainly work, but of all the activities you can do running is going to beat you up the most, especially if you’re just getting started. I generally lean my clients towards walks, rucking, mobility circuits, biking, hiking, or some other enjoyable activity that doesn’t involve pounding unless they compete in a sport that requires it.
The other two primary types of cardiovascular training we’ll talk about are the “interval” style of work. You can slice these a lot of ways, but for everyday use it’s easiest to just divide them into Tempo Training and Sprint/High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Effectively, they both mean going hard for a brief period of time and then resting or going easy to recover before going hard again.
Tempo Training means to go harder than LISS but easier than your max for a period of time. This is usually in that 80-90% intensity range. Athletes use it for technique work without burning themselves out. I find it’s useful for “normal” people because it allows us to touch those higher intensity levels (thus prompting faster changes) but without the huge stress and injury potential of a full-blown sprint.
Tempo Training is great because it can be a lot of things. As I described it above would be closer to running, biking, or using a piece of cardio equipment. However, since you’re really only looking for “pretty hard alternated with pretty easy” that really opens up your option. Circuit-type bodyweight, kettlebell, or similar programs can fit the Tempo Training bill. So does boxing, dancing, or playing a sport like pick-up basketball or Ultimate Frisbee. You can make this pretty fun.
True sprinting or HIIT training is brutal but it can have great effects on your physique and performance. It consists of going absolutely as hard as you can for a very brief interval (five to maybe 30 seconds) and then resting or walking for a recovery period. This, done properly, is extremely tough.
(For the record, if anyone goes to a “HIIT class” and does 30-60 minutes of training, they aren’t going at full-speed. It might be tough and they might sweat a lot, but they’re Tempo Training at best. If it was true HIIT they’d be puking in 15:00.)
Now, how often do you do some sort of cardio work?
It depends. Wildly.
However, for the sake of guidelines:
Understand that Tempo Training and HIIT are closer to strength training on the intensity scale. As such, the more strength work you do, the less of them you’re going to be looking for and vice-versa.
For those who are pretty heavy and/or really out of shape, I would focus only on strength and LISS. 2-3 LISS sessions a week (more if you like) will go a long way to getting you back in shape and open up possibilities for more. Jumping the intensity too fast isn’t going to be efficient since you won’t have the conditioning to do enough of those harder workouts. It’ll also open you up to injuries because of the stress.
I want to put some emphasis on that point: If you’re an adult and you haven’t been training in a while, DO NOT sprint. Every hospital and ortho’s office gets a steady summertime influx of 40 year-old dudes who joined a rec softball or basketball team, thought they were still in high school or college, and tore their Achilles, ACL, or hamstring being a hometown hero. Give your body time to adapt before opening it up.
Mobility vs Flexibility
Mobility is another area of fitness that people are either all-in on or avoid like the plague. The truth is, though, that if you want to feel and perform your best… you’ve gotta be mobile.
To keep with our vehicle analogy – If strength training adds horsepower to the engine and cardio work increases your mileage then mobility training is the suspension that gives you cornering ability and a good ride.
First, let’s break down Mobility vs Flexibility. There’s a difference that many don’t realize. Training for one is far less important than the other.
Flexibility is simply a measure of how far a joint can move. Think about the old school movie “Bloodsport” where Jean-Claude Van Damme is doing his splits between two chairs. That’s flexibility. For most people, raw flexibility isn’t all that important.
Mobility, on the other hand, is when he gets off the chairs without falling over or being awkward. It’s the ability of the body to move through ranges of motion while under control. Flexibility is a factor in mobility, but a large part of it is strength. Your body needs to feel safe, from a nervous system perspective, that it won’t injure itself trying to do a movement. The less security it has around that, the more it’ll tighten down your range of motion. This keeps you safe but also can greatly impact your quality of life.
I’ve seen the mobility part of the puzzle, if unaddressed, derail whole fitness journeys. You can get strong and cardiovascularly fit, but if you feel stiff, lame, and beat up all the time… that takes the fun out of things really quickly. Eventually you wonder why you are doing this and just drop it.
Where to add mobility work and what to do?
You can go deep down the mobility rabbithole or join a program like yoga or Pilates. For most people, though, just getting started with a basic whole body warm-up and a few exercises every day or every other day can go a long, long way.
Looking for a good warm-up that covers most of the mobility bases and can get some mild conditioning in? Here’s the basic one I prescribed at my gym. Tens of thousands of client sessions started with this warm-up. It works.
Pillar #4 – Follow the GPS
Now that we’ve got a plan developed for your targets, nutrition, and fitness, let’s actually follow it. This is the real rub for most people. In over twenty years of personal training, I’ve found that there are two types of people who try but struggle to get in shape.
The first group is the people who just jump in. They decide they’re going to get in shape and next thing you know they’re eating nothing but chicken and kale, going for runs, and telling anyone who slows down about their new health kick. I love the enthusiasm but those people tend to fall out of fitness just as fast as they jumped in.
If you’re that person, reread everything I’ve written above.
The next group that struggles is the opposite. They build a very elaborate and focused training plan. They eliminate all the bad food from the house and craft whole new grocery lists down to the section in the store. They’ve built such an amazing plan that it’s sure to work THIS time, as opposed to the amazing plan that didn’t work LAST time.
The problem here is that they spend so much time planning that they trick their brain. The brain starts to think of the plan as the goal. So when the plan is being worked on it thinks it’s doing the thing. Eventually they get so enamored with the plan that the brain crosses it off the list as “done” and they have no real motivation to put into ENGAGING the plan.
That’s not useful, either.
So what do we do?
First of all, we take off. Start DOING. By now you’ve got a plan or at least a next action step. Take it.
However, we all know what happens when you go on a long road trip. The map is never *quite* up to date, there’s some gnarly construction detours somewhere, or you simply get turned around in Banjo country. Once we get rolling, how do we stay on track?
Ah, I’m glad you asked. I have three key points I want to bring up.
Do the plan before you change the plan
There’s little more frustrating than putting your energy into a plan and it not working. However, I usually see people fall into a pit a long time before that happens. More often than not they don’t do the plan before they jump at the next shiny object.
Imagine your plan was to work out three times a week and eat three vegetables a day. A month later you come back to me and say the plan isn’t working.
“Ok, how’d you do it?”
“Well, the first week I ate, on average, one vegetable a day and got three workouts in. Week Two I only got one workout but ate five vegetables one day. Week Three I worked out twice and averaged six vegetables a day, but that’s because I ate 11 twice. Week Four was just crazy, I only worked out once but I did get two vegetables in a day. Anyway, the plan doesn’t work and I need a new one.”
You see the problem here?
We can’t evaluate the effectiveness of the plan because you didn’t do the plan!
I counsel my clients that first we need to establish consistency and follow-through on the plan. Once we have that squared away at about 90% (for most), THEN we can look at whether or not the plan needs adjustment. Above all things, do the plan before you change the plan.
Now, if it turns out that the plan was simply too ambitious for your current lifestyle and habit levels, then drop it down to where you can nail consistency. Don’t radically change it, just reduce and simplify. Once you’re consistent and it becomes easier, you can turn the dials back up.
Assuming we’ve got the consistency in place, you’re now in a position to start evaluating the quality of the plan for your desired outcomes. Here’s how we do that in as effective and efficient a manner as possible.
- Set defined intervals to check-in. When you’re just starting out, I like longer intervals. You won’t know your body as well, lots of things are changing, and you may have trouble with the consistency angle. It depends a bit on your goals and metrics, but I like monthly check-ins at first. As you become more dialed in, you can shorten that.
- Define what you’re measuring. We talked about this a bit at the beginning, but standardize your measurements. Bodyfat percentage? Scale weight? Waist measurement? Push-ups? Mile run time? Mirror pic? Unsolicited phone numbers on napkins? I don’t care what it is as long as you can measure it, it applies to what you’re working towards, and it’s meaningful to you.
- Keep a running check on your more subjective vitals. These may or may not mean you need to adjust your plan, but if you’re feeling really messed up, struggling with sleep, appetite, etc then you may need to intervene. Remember, the goal is to get in shape, not break yourself and have to start all over. Sore is one thing, broken is another.
Course correct and keep the habit
Once you’ve made an evaluation you may find things need a bit of a course correction. You simply might not have time to do that third day in your schedule. Maybe barbell overhead pressing is just too much on the old football shoulder. Or maybe after a few rounds the nutrition is getting pretty simple and you want to step it up a little.
This is where you course correct and make sure you’re still headed towards your final destination. Any sort of long-term plan or program will have to be changed at some point along the way. When you’re dealing with the “wet” sciences of life (Biology, Psychology, and Ecology) there’s just too much variability to have it all figured out on Day 1.
The big focus is on building the baseline habits of fitness and nutrition back into your life. Think about these as dials, not switches. You don’t just turn on or off good eating or working out. Sometimes you might need, want, or have the bandwidth to go harder. So you turn up the dials. Sometimes it’s the opposite and you need to back down some or all of them. The key is to keep showing up and moving forward. That strengthens the habit and builds consistency, which is going to help you keep going.
Pillar #5 – Do the Maintenance
Just like a high-performance, custom-built car needs regular maintenance and upkeep, so does your personal machine. We’re rolling down the road and feeling confident on getting in shape now, but how do we keep it going for the whole trip? Let’s dig into some quick maintenance.
Recovery is more important than you realize
The problem that a lot of former athletes struggle with when they get back in shape is that they don’t pay enough attention to recovery. Realistically, why would you expect to? For most of your prior experience with exercise it wasn’t a huge deal.
You were younger, so you had that peak recovery of youth.
You’d been playing your sport(s) for years so your work capacity was very high.
You were living the kid and college life. Let’s be honest, while it might have felt stressful at the time, it wasn’t anything like the adult world. All that extra stuff that being a grown-up entails can really sap your recovery and energy.
As an athlete you just didn’t have to worry nearly as much about recovery. Well, things change. So how do we keep you going strong while you’re looking to get in shape?
We start by optimizing Mother Nature’s built in recovery tool – Sleep. Most of us don’t get nearly enough and/or we don’t get nearly enough GOOD sleep. It’ll vary per person, but most people do well on about seven hours of good sleep a night. When you’re first starting training, you may find you want or need some more.
If you just laughed when I said seven good hours, I can speak personally to this. Working the personal trainer/gym owner life had me sleeping about five hours a night on average for years. I functioned and thought I was fine, but when I really worked on my sleep it was the most amazing difference. I recovered faster, thought more clearly, and actually felt like doing things again.
So if you’re struggling there, here’s how we make some adjustments.
Understand that sleep quantity and sleep quality are not the same. In a perfect world, you’d get plenty of both. That’s something to work towards.
If your quantity is low, you’re going to struggle in this journey to get in shape.
Start by adding a little bit in any way possible. There’s basically three adjustments you can make:
- Sleep a little later in the morning. This can be tough, especially if you have a substantial commute or kids that you need to get ready. See if there’s anything you can do to streamline your morning routine that lets you squeeze out a few extra minutes. Maybe you can prep your breakfast and lunch the night before, for example.
- Get to sleep a little earlier. For most people, this is the lever that they can pull first. How often do you catch yourself watching just one more episode of a show or lying in bed scrolling on social media? Make a note to turn the phone or TV off and hit the rack 15 or 30 minutes earlier.
- Sneak in some cat naps. This was my savior when my training schedule was brutal. I was up early and home late, but had some gaps in the middle of the day. A 20-minute nap was a savior. You might not have that kind of schedule, but if you do, sneak in a nap for restoration.
When you’ve made as much time as you can to sleep, you should make the most out of the sleep you get. Now, if you have real sleep issues, then I recommend a sleep specialist. But for some general tips on getting to sleep:
- Go easy on the caffeine, particularly after noon. We live in a caffeinated, coffee and energy drink culture. While I like my caffeine as much (or more so) than the next guy, too much of it can really affect your sleep even hours after you finish the last sip. Start weaning yourself off of the late-day caffeine and you’ll find your sleep improves.
- Go to bed at about the same time every night. Our bodies get used to the routines we set, so if you’re all over the place with your sleep schedule you’ll find it difficult to drift off when you want to.
- Darken the room as much as possible. Even a little bit of light can upset sleep quality, and the more there is the worse it gets. Invest in some good curtains, shut the lights off, and make sure there aren’t any pesky visible lights from electronics filling the room.
Ok, but what if things just get so crazy and I can’t get my workout/meal/whatever in?
Remember that we’re in this for the long haul. The goal here is to get in shape and stay there, right? So don’t fret over any single workout, meal, or nap. You’ve got a lot of life left to go and that means there’s lots of time for adjustment. The big key is to keep momentum.
The biggest trick I’ve found for keeping momentum is to have a pre-designed Minimum Effective Dose (MED). This is a bare minimum that allows you to “check the box” and count a win. The key is to have some ideas already built so that when things get hectic you’re not trying to figure out what to do. That’s going to be adding to an already stressful situation and will likely make you toss your hands up.
Your MED’s will be your own, but for me:
- I have a couple of simple bodyweight and kettlebell workouts that I know I can get done in about ten minutes and don’t require any unusual space or even to change clothes. I can just bust them out and then I’ve done a workout.
- I have a personal streak of doing outdoor cardio every day for over 1200 days at the time of this writing. There are some days where I’m busy, stressed, maybe a little sick and I just can’t get in a big, long walk or ruck. So I have a very short loop (about 15 minutes) that I can do (and have) even in a blizzard or hurricane that gets the box checked.
- For my nutrition I know that if I’m getting a meal with some protein and a fruit or veggie, then I’m moving ahead. I can get something that fits that bill from a gas station, grocery store, or any restaurant.
Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.
As I said above, we’re engineering a plan to make lasting change here. Nobody wants to get in shape and then fall out of it, right? So don’t stress about the deep details.
The great thing about starting on the path to get in shape is that it’s the biggest improvement you can make: From level zero (planning-wise) to something. That means that the gains will come fast and easy at first. Take advantage of that and take it slow, making smooth progress. When you’re making smooth progress then the gains happen faster than you think they will.
Ok, that all sounds great, but what does it look like?
Your plan will be your own, obviously, but here’s a very effective framework I’ve used with hundreds of clients over the years.
Basic Get In Shape 101 Fitness Plan
Strength Training Sessions: 2-3x/week, whole body workouts.
If you’re just trying to get a little stronger and build/maintain your muscle then you could do two workouts. Most of the people I talk to want to look a little extra, so three makes the most sense.
How to schedule strength training
You want as much balance and recovery as possible. In a perfect world that might look like Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Friday for a 2x/week plan. For three days a week most of my clients do well with a Mon-Wed-Fri or Tue-Thu-Sat program.
Can you do something else if life forces you? For sure. I had a client who had very specific needs and a demanding few months of work and family commitments. What we did for about six months was two big training days on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Was it perfect? Absolutely not. But we were able to thread the needle and he still got his results.
What do the strength sessions look like?
What works well on this plan is, after a good warm-up, hit a lower body movement (Deadlifts, squats, lunges) followed by an upper body push and pull. Then finish up with some little stuff like arms, abs, or other specialty exercises.
Mobility: Little bits daily
For most people, doing an entire hour-long mobility session isn’t necessary or practical. If you’re just starting out, it’s daunting. If you do want to do that I’ve found works well for my new clients is either to join a Yoga or similar class, which makes it more fun. The teacher-lead and community aspect can help.
If that’s not the route you want or can take, what I like to do is make sure that every training session has a little mobility. So utilize a good dynamic warm-up like I posted above and, for a little extra boost, follow it with just 1-2 stretches or mobility exercises on some problem area you have.
Intense of Cardio: 1x/week
Once you’re past that initial stage where you’re huffing and puffing at everything then I do recommend a day of interval training. This will expose you to those higher intensities, help keep fat at bay, and get you feeling athletic. As I talked about above, this doesn’t mean that I think most people should all-out sprint. Instead, make use of Tempo Training.
This is also the place to mix in modalities and add some play elements. You don’t need to be just running. You could bike, run hills, do a strength-based circuit, or play a sport. Try to do something you enjoy doing and turn it into play.
Basic Movement – Steady Cardio: Lots
Finally, we come to basic movement and Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) cardio. We’re designed to move and move a lot. Making use of this ability is a huge factor in our overall fitness. When you’re on a mission to get in shape, this is where it’s easy to drop the ball.
Throughout our evolutionary history, humans have leaned heavily on our endurance to survive. We don’t have the biggest teeth and claws and we’re not the fastest sprinters, but we can walk for miles and miles. Everything in our survival used to involve quite a bit of movement every day, until recently.
Now it’s very easy to go through an entire day of bed -> drive to work -> sit at desk -> drive home -> Netflix -> bed. You can get through a whole day with only taking 1000-2000 steps. That’s not much and it runs counter to how we’re wired.
So we gotta get that movement level up. For most of my clients starting out here’s what I recommend, based on both research and anecdote from client history:
Minimum: 6000 steps and/or 20 minutes of dedicated movement* a day
Good: 7500 steps and/or 30 minutes of dedicated movement* a day
Winning: 10000 steps/day and/or 45 minutes of dedicated movement* a day
*Note that “dedicated movement” can be a workout like strength or intervals, as well.
There’s two ways you can go about this:
- A conscious effort to do more walking throughout your day. There are a variety of tricks you could employ here like parking further away in the lot, skipping the elevator for the stairs, and walking on your brakes. These are all good, but for most people this won’t do it.
- Add in a few LISS sessions a week. Bike, paddle, walk, hike, etc. Just get out there and move at a steady pace. This is a good time to take calls, listen to podcasts, or just unplug.
Getting in shape doesn’t need to be complex. Quite frankly, the more complex you make it the less likely you’ll be to succeed. There’s a reason why the cliche of “Eat better, move more” holds up. At its base level it’s true.
However, platitude advice like that really misses when the rubber meets the road. You DO need a clear understanding of what you want to accomplish and how you’re going to get there. Once you get rolling and the momentum is on your side it’s a lot easier to fine-tune the journey.
This was written to help you get that clarity and as a guide on that path to get in shape. The key to your success will be building a lifestyle, environment, and set of habits to keep it in motion. The best way to do that is with my free Ignite the Spark course. Every day you’ll get some brief exercises on how to fine-tune your habits, environment, and practices, getting rid of the ones that don’t serve your success and bolstering the ones that do. Sign up now.